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'The Kindly Ones,' by Jonathan Littell

The Kindly Ones

A Novel

Jonathan Littell, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell

Harper: 984 pp., $29.99

Literature has given us many unsympathetic protagonists yet relatively few genuine monsters: "Lolita's" Humbert Humbert, Shakespeare's Richard III and "American Psycho's" Patrick Bateman come to mind. In each case, the writer was successful because the reader was drawn into the narrative by the beauty of the language, a masterful use of point of view, or an intriguing personal life against which the monstrosity of the main character could be highlighted. In "The Kindly Ones," the Prix Goncourt-winning novel that has created a cultural sensation in France and is now being published in the United States, Jonathan Littell has done none of this, with the result that his novel reads like a pornographic catalog of horrors.

"The Kindly Ones" is ostensibly the memoir of Maximilien Aue, a legal scholar who joins the main intelligence branch within the SS and slowly rises through the echelons of power. As a Nazi officer, he witnesses or participates in the major events of World War II -- the Eastern Front, the Battle of Stalingrad, the massacres in Auschwitz -- but evades capture after the fall of the Third Reich. He flees to France, uses his prewar connections to start a lace business, marries, has children and grandchildren, and leads the quiet life of a petit bourgeois.

In occasional flashbacks, the reader discovers a few details about Aue's birth and upbringing. When Aue was just a young boy, his father, a German veteran of World War I, went to visit a relative and never returned. Aue's mother then married a Frenchman, moving the family to the Côte d'Azur. For several years, Aue carried on an incestuous relationship with his twin sister, Una, until the two were found out and swiftly separated. Aue later has many homosexual encounters because, he says, he hopes to replicate his sister's sexual pleasures with him. If you think this story is unpleasant, or convoluted, or tragically Greek, wait until you get to the last third of the book.

Littell's ambition is to construct a character through whom the reader can witness the gradual making of a monster. In his first military posting in the Ukraine, his commanding officer asks Aue to "go have a look" at the courtyard of the Castle Lubart, where hundreds of corpses are rotting. The abominable stench makes Aue nauseous. "Your first time?" a fellow officer asks. "You'll get used to it." And indeed Aue gets used to it, even if the reader never does. As a genocide unspools before his eyes, Aue's response is not to question its occurrence but, rather, to question the methods of its execution.

For instance, when his superiors round up a thousand random Jews as retaliation for the killing of some German soldiers, Aue stays up at night, bothered by the fact that this was "very unfair; the Jews of goodwill would be punished, the ones who might have come to trust the word of the German Reich; as for the others, the cowards, the traitors, the Bolsheviks, they'd stay hidden and we wouldn't find them." Soon enough, he becomes a fervent defender of the Final Solution: In "wartime, in a context of occupation, and with our limited resources, it is impossible for us to carry out individual investigations. So we are forced to consider the risk-bearing groups as a whole, and to react globally." By the end of the book, even Adolf Hitler's nose starts to seem, to someone so obsessed with the purity and superiority of German blood, "clearly a Slavonic or Bohemian nose, nearly Mongolo-Ostic."

Unfortunately, Littell's execution does not match his ambition. As a character, Aue is neither plausible nor realistic. Like Forrest Gump, he conveniently manages to be wherever the most significant events of the war take place, at the time in which they take place, and to interact with all the relevant figures of Nazism -- Paul Blobel, Adolf Eichmann, Heinrich Himmler and Hitler himself. The encounter with Hitler borders on the farcical. (I should mention that Littell can't resist inserting famous people into this book: Una studies psychology in Zurich with Carl Jung, a grandchild of the composer Schubert turns up as a soldier and so on.) Aue lurches from one job posting to another depending on the needs of the plot and engages in conversations whose sole purpose seems to be to provide historical detail, however fascinating or mundane it might be. Even the transformation of Aue from a constitutional law expert into a coldblooded executioner seems too linear to be believable.

Littell tries to save his character from being a stereotypical Nazi officer by resorting to frequent mentions of certain cultural markers. Aue reads Plato and Chekhov; he enjoys good wine; he speaks French, Greek and Latin; he discusses Lermontov with his colleagues; he visits local museums in nearly all the cities in which he is stationed. But while the ability to quote François Villon or Bossuet might not make him a stereotype, it is not enough to turn him into a complex character. One might argue that Aue is not meant to be plausible, but then again neither does he seem to be consistent. He has no private thoughts for a hundred pages, and then suddenly describes his sexual obsession with his twin sister or recalls a childhood episode in which he sodomizes himself with a sausage covered in olive oil, which he then feeds to his mother and stepfather. (There are many revolting memories in this book.)

For the most part, French readers and critics appear not to have had such problems with "The Kindly Ones." The book became an instant literary and commercial success when it was published in France three years ago. Aside from the Prix Goncourt, France's most prestigious literary prize, Littell won the Grand Prix du Roman, awarded by the Académie Française. In the last few years, such prizes have occasionally been awarded to immigrant or expatriate writers, but Littell's case was singular. Here was an American writer who, in the midst of American cultural hegemony, wrote in the language of Molière. Mais c'est fantastique! The novel was hailed as a masterpiece and sold more than 700,000 copies. Littell was finally given French citizenship.

Still, the character of Max Aue stirred uneasy passions among a small but vocal section of the French cultural elite. Was it ethical to write from the point of view of the Nazi executioner rather than the Jewish victim? What could possibly drive Littell, a former aid worker who has served in places like Bosnia and Rwanda, to such a choice? Perhaps in an effort to address these questions, Littell wrote a short book last year about Léon Degrelle, a Belgian fascist leader who seems to have been his inspiration for the character of Max Aue (and, yes, of course, Degrelle gets his own cameo in "The Kindly Ones"). But the pamphlet seems to have persuaded only those who had already found Aue believable.

"The Kindly Ones" is divided into seven major sections, each with a title that evokes a musical theme (Toccata, Courante, Sarabande, etc.). This chilling juxtaposition of beauty with evil might have worked better if it hadn't been overshadowed by other stylistic choices. Indeed, while the dialogue is clearly indicated with quotation marks, it is not set apart from the narrative text by white space or line breaks. Every page looks like a large column of words. Perhaps this is meant to highlight the suffocating effect of the terrible events in the story, but the reader is just as likely to feel suffocated by the plodding style that Littell uses.

In the opening section, Littell modulates the first-person point of view several times, so that the tone is by turns confessional ("Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened."); argumentative ("If after all these years I've made up my mind to write, it's to set the record straight for myself, not for you."); casual; dismissive; introspective and, finally, at once critical and self-critical. These modulations are mixed throughout the book, with the effect that the reader never feels guided by a single narrative consciousness.

Jonathan Littell has undertaken a very ambitious project in "The Kindly Ones," and I think his boldness deserves to be commended. In the end, however, his highly problematic characterization and awkward handling of point of view make this book far more successful as a dramatized historical document than as a novel.

Lalami's new novel, "Secret Son," will be published in April.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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